South African President Jacob Zuma on Tuesday narrowly survived a motion of no-confidence against him in parliament, the most serious attempt yet to unseat him after months of growing anger over allegations of corruption and a sinking economy.
It was the sixth such vote of his increasingly beleaguered presidency, but the first involving a secret ballot, with a broad coalition of opposition parties and renegade lawmakers from the ruling African National Congress (ANC) falling just short of the simple majority needed to force Zuma and his Cabinet to resign immediately.
The ballot counting was accompanied by scenes of singing and dancing on both sides of the assembly, as rival parties sought to project confidence.
“We taught you this song, and you don’t even sing it properly,” opposition Economic Freedom Fighters leader Julius Malema said, dressed in signature red overalls, addressing his ANC counterparts.
South African Speaker of the Parliament Baleka Mbete announced the result: 198 lawmakers voted against the motion, compared with 177 in favor. There were nine abstentions.
“Therefore the motion of no confidence in the president is accordingly negative,” Mbete said.
ANC lawmakers whooped and danced at the news.
An upbeat Zuma arrived at the parliamentary precinct about an hour after the result was announced.
“I’ve just come to say thank you to all of you. Those comrades who are in parliament needed the support from the membership. You came in your numbers to demonstrate that the ANC is there, is powerful, is big. It is difficult to defeat the ANC, but you can try,” he said.
He then gave a rendition of Yinde Lendlela, his signature tune. The title translates from Zulu as “It’s a Long Road,” and the implication is clear: His journey is not over yet.
Zuma, 75, has never been far from scandal since he became president in 2009. Another major criticism raised during the parliamentary debate included allegations that he had allowed the state to be “captured” by the Guptas, an Indian business family that has been at the center of a string of media exposes about graft in government and state-owned enterprises.
The no-confidence motion was brought by the Democratic Alliance (DA), the largest opposition party, in response to a Cabinet reshuffle in March, in which Zuma sacked the popular minister of finance Pravin Gordhan.
The president was playing “Russian roulette” with the economy, DA leader Mmusi Maimane said.
“I never imagined that one day I would be here in this parliament fighting a new form of oppression,” Maimane said during the debate on the motion. “A corrupt system that keeps our people imprisoned in poverty. If you told me that one day our democratically elected president would end up corrupted and captured by a criminal syndicate, I would have never believed you, but here we are.”
ANC lawmakers said the party remained united behind Zuma and had set up internal processes to deal with accusations of corruption and poor governance. The no-confidence motion was dismissed repeatedly as an attempted power grab by the opposition.
“[The opposition] are using the constitution so as to collapse government, deter service delivery and sow the seeds of chaos in society so as to ultimately grab power... Shame on you,” ANC deputy chief whip Doris Dlakude said.
Although Zuma has survived this battle, he is still fighting for his political future. His term as president expires in 2019 and under the South African constitution he cannot run again.
More immediately, his term as president of the ANC expires in December. He is lobbying hard to install former African Union Commission chair Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, who is his ex-wife, as his successor. Opponents within the party are largely rallying behind Ramaphosa, although there are other names in the mix.
Despite the parliamentary defeat, Maimane hailed the close vote as a victory for the opposition DA.
“Today’s motion of no confidence result is closer than anyone expected. The result reveals an ANC that is totally divided against itself. Jacob Zuma has survived, but he has nothing to celebrate tonight. He is mortally wounded and his party is in tatters. Tonight’s result, despite the slender victory, signals the death of the ANC,” he said in a statement.
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